Privatisation of prisons

19 Aug 2004

Prison privatisation emerged in the United States in the mid 1980s and quickly spread to Australia and the United Kingdom. In the US, there are now over 100 private prisons in 31 states and the federal system, in the UK there are 11 private prisons, and in Australia there are seven. Queensland and Victoria each have two private prisons and NSW, South Australia and Western Australia each have one.

In this report Lenny Roth surveys the evidence on their performance. In summmary:

Research on the performance of private prisons in Australia is very limited. One study of prisons in Australia found that in the period 1990-99, public and private prisons had similar rates of death from all causes and from suicide specifically. In NSW, there has been no comprehensive study comparing the performance of Junee prison with public prisons in this state or assessing whether privatisation has impacted on the prison system. However, a four-year review of Junee by the NSW Department of Corrective Services and a number of reports from various statutory monitors give some insight into the private operator's performance.

An empirical study of one private prison in Queensland concluded that the private sector failed to deliver on the promises of both internal and external reform. This was explained on the basis that properly regulatory structures had not been put in place. In Victoria, an independent investigation into private prisons found that the introduction of the private sector had mixed results and made recommendations to promote greater cohesiveness across the system. The Metropolitan Women's prison in Victoria is the only private prison in Australia to have been reclaimed by the state due to deficiencies.

More empirical studies have been carried out in the UK and the US. A 2003 report by the UK National Audit Office concluded that private prisons in the UK had both encouraging and disappointing results. In the US, a 1998 report commissioned by the National Institute of Corrections, and a 2001 report by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJS), reviewed a number of studies and suggested that there was no definitive research evidence to support the conclusion that privately operated facilities were significantly cheaper or better in quality. The BJS report also published the results of survey of state prison privatisation, which came to a similar view. Private prison supporters have cited other recent studies suggesting otherwise.


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